John preaching a baptism of repentance seems a strange place to start with Advent. The image of repentance, full of wrongs, mistakes, and guilt, seems a strange place to dwell in the midst of twinkling lights, delicious cookies, and gifts under the tree. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, so why spend time on what is wrong with our lives and the mistakes we have made.
John enters the narrative during a time of great anticipation. Israel returned from exile nearly 500 years before, yet the promises of renewal and a Davidic king returning to the throne have not been realized. The crowds at this point were desperate. They were desperate for a word from the Lord. They were desperate for the King to return. They were desperate for the Messiah.
While John comes at a time of great anticipation, John is not the Messiah. John’s role, instead, was to remind the people of who they were created to become. John’s role was to remind the people of their fundamental calling as a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. Israel was to be a light to the world, drawing the nations into relationship with God. Israel was to be a people who welcomed the King. God had redeemed them from slavery not because of Israel’s greatness or special status, but for the sake of the world. Israel was later given the Law, not to have a list of rules to follow, but to form a community, to provide ethical guidelines, that would be a sign to the rest of the world of how life is supposed to be lived. The rest of the nations were to witness Israel’s way of life, and long to live the same way.
Sadly, Israel failed. Israel failed to remain faithful, and live into their calling. Thus God sends John. God sends John to call the people back to God and remind them of their fundamental calling to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. You are the light of the world, John says. You are a sign; an example of the way life is to be lived. Yet you have failed. You have fallen away from your first love. You have allowed other idols or desires to gain prominence in your lives. You have not remained pure. Instead of setting an example for the nations you have become like the nations. So repent. Change your ways. Recommit to your first love. If you have two jackets, give one away. If you have plenty of food, share with those who have none. Spend time in prayer. Keep God first. In essence, love God and love others.
Then John quotes from Isaiah, a passage that seems strange and foreboding, but is full of hope and love. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the paths straight. The mountains are brought low, the valleys are raised, and the rough patches are made smooth, so that all flesh will see the salvation of the Lord. You may be away from God now, but God is providing an easy path back. God is removing all of the obstacles. Return now for the salvation of the Lord is near.
John wants the people to return to God because the Christ is coming soon. Don’t wait until God returns to practice righteousness. Begin now in preparation for the Christ to come. Repent. Admit mistakes. Change your ways. The day of salvation is near.
Which is why the message of John is a vital message for us as we live through the season of Advent, eagerly anticipating the coming King. It’s easy during this season to enjoy the moment, live into the joy, and long for the happiness and hope that comes in the birth of a child. We don’t want to consider our own mistakes and the areas of our lives that need to be corrected. Yet to await the coming King and the hope of a good future without self-reflection and admitting mistakes is to fall short of our own calling. We are called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We can’t fulfill that calling without admitting our mistakes and pointing ourselves toward God. We need to hear the message of John, “prepare the way of the Lord, make the paths straight.” We need to hear John preaching a baptism of repentance. We need to hear John challenging us to live into the ethical commands of God. We need to hear John encouraging us to do what is right; to love God with our whole hearts, but also to love others in a way that makes their lives better.
As we eagerly anticipate the coming King, we practice repentance. We prepare our lives for the coming king, admitting our own mistakes and ridding our lives of sin. As we repent, and live into the hope of our coming salvation, we become a sign to the rest of the world calling others into the same hope.